A little bug selectively bred on a cactus in Mexico way back in the 1500s, for its use as a magnificently unique red dye, soon became recognized, by European traders who discovered it while bartering in the Aztecan markets, as the most dazzling rich red on the planet. The result was the realization that this red bug juice was a rare trading commodity that rivaled even gold! Yes, a squished bug that oozed a red color that was so extraordinary that it was nearly valued above all. This indigenous American discovery spread worldwide and altered the course of history for art (obviously), cultural influences, certainly its trading value and even science.
Before I continue with this brief summary of this extraordinary discovery and my personal comments on the subject, try this little experiment. Think of all the things that you associate with red. Think of all the things that are special and standout because they are red. Do this yourself – make a list or maybe make it a game of it at a party – have everyone make their own list and then share the lists – see how many make the same observations and how many identify different items. More on this later…
This story behind today’s blog is derived from a book by Amy Butler Greenfield, A Perfect Red Empire, Espionage, and the Quest for the Color of Desire which influenced a collective of international experts, in a variety of fields of expertise, to produce an incomparable exhibit at the Museum of International Folk Art in Santa Fe that astonished the world. The book that compiles photographs of worldly treasures and narrative describing the making of and content of this extraordinary exhibit is A Red Like No Other – How Cochineal Colored the World. It was my Valentine’s gift and it truly is a treasure – a gift of love.
Cocheneal, this little bug and its unexpected authority and influence, is the center of this universal love affair. A love affair with a color so seductive and so powerful that it evokes passion and emotion with everything that bears its true hue. The forward of this book by co-editor Carmella Padilla states that “everyone has a visceral knowledge of red. Therein lies its power. ” Red is imperative. And if you didn’t realize the depth of this statement, you will be amused, challenged, amazed and intrigued beyond belief to read about the history and processes behind this exhibit .
Carmine – this regal bug juice, so purely red, the prized pigment – is something all artists revere. They know the importance of this hue as they strive to create their projects. The quest for the perfect colors and the balance of colors in painting and in other art forms is an ongoing progressive journey. I feel remiss to not have known about this earlier. How can you take art history for semesters on end and not be introduced to this? It’s been an exciting discovery for me to learn of this viscose bug extract, carmine, and this recent journey I have taken to read of its history has been truly thrilling.
As I write this, by stark contrast to the wonderfully cerebral documentation and observations in this book, I find myself watching the endearingly inane movie Nacho Libre out of the corner of my eye. And what surprises me all of a sudden is that the color red is so effectively inserted into the scenes.
The director, Jared Hess, knowingly or not recognized the value of the color pop and punctuated many artful scenes that would have lacked depth and interest had he not had the eye to do so. My heightened awareness amuses me – especially in the context of this crazy, silly movie. The creatively artful incorporation and placement of red is so apparent in this nutty, fun film. Her lips, his costume, the children’s masks, a sunspot on a bus, the fighting ring ropes, structural elements in the arena are all so subliminal yet so vivid. Consistent and repeated use of the contrast with the bold red color in combination with turquoise is also a key element in this film.
So back to the party where everyone is listing things they associate with red. If you can get a copy of this book and whip it out after everyone has read the lists, I promise everyone will find it captivating on so many levels and subjects – great lively conversation, fun, fascination and amazement will ensue!!